The forthcoming West Bengal Assembly election promises to be one of the most bitterly contested battles in recent times. The BJP, once a fringe player in the state, has mounted a sustained offensive against Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (AITC), with the once-powerful CPM playing spoiler. Although the outcome of this election will not have a direct bearing on national politics, it has the potential of recalibrating regional politics.
Like Tamil Nadu where regional parties have prevailed since 1967, Bengal has set itself apart from national politics since 1977. In theory, the CPM which ruled from 1977 to 2011 was a national party professing an internalist orientation. In practice, however, the Communist movement in Bengal since the split of 1964 was a reflection of very Bengali impulses. Likewise, the AITC originated in the failure of the Congress to balance its national priorities with the concerns of its Bengal unit. Its epicentre has always been narrowly Kolkata. If the BJP, with its promise of ‘double engine’ government, succeeds in upstaging the feisty Mamata, it will reshape existing political assumptions and reinforce the saffron party’s hegemonic status nationally.
The fight in Bengal isn’t going to be confined to concerns over the state’s progressive loss of economic importance and the governance record of the AITC in the past 10 years. Mamata has enlarged the stakes by projecting the electoral battle as one involving the defence of the Bengali identity against predators from Gujarat. In particular, she has posited the slogan Joy Bangla — borrowed from the liberation struggle of Bangladesh — against the BJP’s Jai Sri Ram, claiming that the latter is alien to the Bengali cultural personality.
The steady popularity of Jai Sri Ram in Bengal is undeniably an interesting phenomenon. Unlike northern and western India where the Ayodhya temple movement and the associated cry of Jai Sri Ram defined popular consciousness after 1988, Bengal was left largely untouched by the rise of assertive Hindu nationalism. In a state dominated by chants of either Inquilab Zindabad or Vande Mataram, there seemed no space for Jai Sri Ram. On its part, the Bengali intelligentsia with its self-image of being progressive turned up its nose at the chant. Jai Sri Ram was associated with the ‘regressive’ politics of the cow belt and deemed unworthy of the Bengali cultural inheritance.
What has changed since 2019 when the BJP won 18 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats and gathered 40% of the popular vote? Political Hindutva in Bengal had its origins in the pre-Gandhian nationalist movement. The imagery of that nationalism was identified with Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s Bande Mataram and the deification of Bharat Mata which flowed naturally from the worship of the goddess Durga. Jai Sri Ram — derived from the folk traditions of northern India — did not fit easily into this imagination, not least because the Ayodhya movement coincided with the high noon of Left politics in the state.
To view the dramatic emergence of Jai Sri Ram in the political battlefields of Bengal as evidence of the same Hindutva that overwhelmed the Hindi belt is tempting, but not necessarily accurate. There is no evidence to suggest that Hindu Bengal has abruptly witnessed a spectacular rise in religiosity. Jai Sri Ram may be heard during the Ram Navami celebrations but otherwise its usage is entirely political. In today’s Bengal it has become a potent symbol of protest by groups that are outside the Bengali cultural elite. It has ended up as a subaltern war cry.
Whether the unique flavour conferred on Jai Sri Ram has anything to do with the irritation felt by Mamata at the slogan is also worth considering. During the 2019 campaign, the chief minister described it as a term of abuse and last month she threw a hissy fit when a section of the crowd taunted her with Jai Sri Ram at an event in Kolkata. These intemperate reactions have helped enshrine Jai Sri Ram as a symbol of opposition to everything Mamata is seen to stand for, from ‘appeasement’ of minorities and the Bengali Hindu fear of being further edged out to plain misgovernance. Just as Vande Mataram was a proverbial red rag to the British Raj, Jai Sri Ram is a vocal assertion of a mounting rage.
More ominously for the chief minister, the identification of this heady chant — associated with a war against evil — with the BJP should be worrying. In the game of competitive mobilisation, the AITC lacks an equally catchy counter to those who feel they have righteousness on their side. In the moral economy of electoral politics, this could prove decisive.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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